Wikipedia:History vs. genealogy
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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of European aristocrats – with plenty of time on their hands, and even more money – started showing an increased interest in the past. The focus of these men, often referred to as antiquarians, was the descent of great families; their coat of arms and family trees. By extensive study of ancient archives they developed the field of study which is today known as genealogy.
Their research was of enormous importance, and still is today. It was not, however, history.[a] In the nineteenth century – spearheaded by Leopold von Ranke – emerged the new branch of academic history, whose object was not simply the accumulation of large amounts of information, but a critical approach to historical sources, and a thorough and rational analysis of past events, their cause and effect.
Genealogy remains a useful auxiliary science, without which history cannot properly be conducted. Yet at the same time it also holds great sway over the popular imagination, probably more so than academic history. This is only natural; the pursuit of genealogy can give people important answers to the questions of who they are and where they come from. The internet has advanced this interest enormously; Cyndi's List has a directory of some 265,000 genealogy sites, while a Google search for "family history" gives more than 27 million results. Wikipedia – being a community-based, non-academic encyclopaedia – reflects this partiality. Let me give a couple of examples from the period closest to my own heart:
- The reign of Edward I of England saw the development of the first regular, widely representative parliaments, and subsequently a more advanced system of government taxation. The consequences – for England, and eventually the rest of the world – would be momentous. Yet this subject barely gets a couple of lines' mention in the article on the king. What we do get is no less than seven (count them – seven!) infoboxes or sections dealing with Edward's genealogy, some of them horribly space-consuming, many simply duplicating information.
- In the article about Edward's contemporary Robert de Holland, we read that "He was something of a small player in this era and so might be more noted for being of genealogical interest." Then follows a long list of English and French, but mostly American notables who can trace their descent to him. Below this is a list of his thirteen children, and links to four different sites on...yes, genealogy. First of all, Holland was the favourite of the most powerful nobleman in the nation, so by no means was he a "small player". Secondly, knowing anything about the descent of families: if a fourteenth-century nobleman had thirteen children, would it not be bizarre if, five hundred years later, a great number of Anglo-Saxon Americans did not descend from him? And, more to the point: what does it matter? Beyond pure trivia and cocktail party conversation: how does it affect Robert de Holland that George Washington was one of his descendants, or vice versa?
Now, I know the automated reply: "why don't you fix it?" Believe me, I hope to get the time to give these articles a thorough overhaul at some point. But I think the problem goes beyond simple fix-up of a few articles, and that it is a deeper, structural problem with the way Wikipedia treats the subject of history. Wikipedia is not a directory, neither is it an indiscriminate collection of information; it is an encyclopaedia, and should contain encyclopaedic information. To put it differently: Wikipedia is not about you. There's MySpace for that, but what makes Wikipedia so special among community-based web sites is that it does not cater to the narcissism of contemporary culture, but rather asks contributors to lose themselves in the dissemination of universal knowledge. Likewise, genealogy is about you, history is about all of us.
The reasons why I write this essay are twofold: for one, I want to see if there is agreement on the issues I have pointed out (if not, I'll just keep my mouth shut). Secondly – should others agree – I would like to ask for suggestions as to what can be done to counter this trend.